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Design Your Own Stuff! Cut Out the Middlemen and Design / Build Your Own Products

More than eleven years ago, in April of 2000, I authored an article for the national Tool & Machining Association describing what I believe manufacturing will look like in the future, stretching all of the way out to the year 2050. In one section describing the years between 2010 and 2030, I said: “Net-shape fabrication centers that take raw aluminum and part design data as inputs and yield completed component parts as output; and, subassembly centers that configure assembly tooling continuously and perform the assembly itself, based on assembly instructions, virtual part placement simulation that avoids interferences, and assure minimal deviation in every critical interface. Linking these components through a master process management system, the factory will become a set of ‘virtually’ managed physical processes linked in a network spanning each element from design through delivery.” It appears as though I got this one right.

In an article entitled “The Design Economy” from the January/February issue of Futurist Magazine, author Thomas Easton (a professor at Thomas College) quotes Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory:

“In 20 years, we will be able to print [manufacture on a desktop] working objects using multiple materials such as plastics, wiring, and silicon. This is when we will be able to download the file for a new iPod and print it at home. I actually believe that the applications in the 20-year and even the 10-year horizon are those we haven’t thought of today. The sky really can be the limit.”

Ms. Lewis has solid ground for her optimism. Several companies have emerged that “print” products directly from a Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) system, including Desktop Factory (Ms. Lewis’ company) and Ponoko. In the case of Ponoko, customers today can upload designs for furniture, jewelry, etc. by computer. The Ponoko system uses these design files to power computer-controlled milling machines that cut the parts for the products out of plywood and plastic sheet. The parts are then shipped to the customer for assembly and use.

This is very similar to the Frame-CAD types of machines already in widespread use for metal building construction. These machines start with coils of metal (typically aluminum or galvanized steel) and one CAD-driven machine unrolls, cuts, punches, bends, an labels all of the components needed to assemble a complete building from the metal studs to the finished skins for sidewalls and roofs. All the customer has to do is assemble it in place on a concrete slab. I have watched several of these buildings go up recently, and it truly is something to behold. The entire set of components can be produced in hours, and assembled in a day for simple structures. I have seen these structures assembled in buildings large enough to be aircraft hangars.

Essentially, the 3-D Printing method utilizes a CAD drawing in the same manner that stereolithography systems have been used by manufacturers to create prototype designs for many years. In stereolithography, lasers are used to harden polymers into a desired shape that represents the designed component. But the result is a plastic model – not a usable product. In 3-D printing, any 3-dimensional object can be broken down into a series of 2-dimensional slices and produced using powders, liquid plastics, and pastes. A similar technique employed by Stratasys equipment called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) utilizes a heated chamber and moving extrusion heads that deploy thin streams of melted plastic to produce their finished pieces.

Easton says:

“One result will be a leveling effect on the world as a whole. The penetration of computers into the developing world has already had major economic impacts in the forms of outsourcing and offshoring, so developing-world designers of everything from art to kitchen appliances will be able to acquire CAD/CAM [Computer Aided Design / Computer Aided Manufacture] skills much more easily than factories. Once they have rendered their ideas in the form of CAD/CAM files, they will be able to upload them to design brokers such as Ponoko. If the designs appeal to customers, income will flow from to the developing world and local economies will be lifted.”

This model reminds me very much of the Zazzle company’s business model, which I have used to design my own T-Shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse-pads employing my own photography to create useful gift items for family members and friends. (This blog, in combination with a sister article I wrote entitled “Do You Want a 1,000 Year Life Span? “ is oddly reminiscent of a movie I saw years ago called “Weird Science”.)

As one of the guys who predicted all of these developments more than a decade ago, it’s gratifying to see my vision of the future coming into reality – and right on time. Even more gratifying is my satisfaction as a manufacturing guy to watch these developments materialize and advance the state of the art. Easton says: “Christmas shoppers in the year 2024 will buy printable files that download directly to a 3D printer or fabber in consumers’ homes.” Sounds like fun to me! What do you think?

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